Breach Loaded Firearms

Flintlock guns required the user to pour gunpowder into the barrel of the weapon, stamp it down, add a bullet, then carefully pick the whole thing up and fire it. By the time all that finished, soldiers could be chased down and stabbed with a knife.

Breach-loading firearms opened the rifle near the back. They allow soldiers to insert the gunpowder and bullet at the end, a much faster process. However, early rifles were oftentimes too weak to support the subsequent explosion and would blow up in the shooters face.

Despite that, Scotsman Patrick Ferguson invented the first breach-loaded weapon used in the Civil War in service to the King of England. Ferguson’s guns worked reasonably well but, after the war, Americans captured and killed him due to reports of his incivility to US rebel soldiers.

Breach loading rifles were complex and controversial at first. Neither soldiers nor hunters favored weapons that might blow up in their face.

Over time, as manufacturing methods improved, cartridges became technologically possible. With cartridges, the gunpowder and bullet are in one piece, manufactured together. This makes them far less likely to blow up in the shooters face. The American Manufacturing Method, using standardized parts, enabled tighter standards.

Today, virtually all guns are breach loading. Some enormous weapons, including mortars, are loaded from the front but these are a small corner case where cartridges would be too big.


While Guttenberg’s forge was working to bring about the Renaissance, a more common use was to create weapons to kill one another. One of the most noteworthy is the musket.


Early muskets were more like small cannons than the later-day rifles. Sometimes two-people needed to operate the earliest weapons due to their weight. Armies responded by building even heavier armor.

However, by the mid-1600s, technology began to miniaturize. The flintlock enabled dramatically smaller and less expensive muskets. Single soldiers could carry and operate a musket. Armor made little difference. Avoidance, instead of armor, became the most effective means of defense.

By the 1700s, the musket was in common use for both fighting and hunting. Miniaturization continued and the pistol, a mini-musket, eventually evolved as a weapon in its own right.

Muskets are different from rifles in that they’re less accurate but easier to load, fire, and require less cleaning. Since even the most accurate rifle at the time could barely hit the side of a barn the extra cost wasn’t worth the hassle.

Use & Impact

The US and French revolutions, plus countless other wars, featured muskets as a primary weapon. Many soldiers fought in the US Civil War in the 1860s with old flintlocks despite the availability by then of better technology.

Musket manufacturing led to the creation of standardized parts, the American Manufacturing System. French arms maker Honoré Le Blanc originally developed standardized parts. However, the French government rejected his methods due to the perceived effect of automation on jobs. Then ambassador Thomas Jefferson brought the new system to American Eli Whitney, and the method drove US innovation for the next century.

The musket had profound changes to military and civilian culture by simplifying hunting, largely eliminating the usefulness of armor. Furthermore, it created the notion that one person with a gun can make a difference, an idea later popularized by Sam Colt.